Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Friday, March 16, 2007

  White House cover-ups erode before our eyes

It's stunning the pace at which the administration's cover-ups are crumbling. In the first six years of Bush's rule, his only policy achievements were in the fields of public deception, stone-walling, and cover-ups. Now even that modest measure of success is all gone.


~~~


Yesterday we saw the cover pulled back from yet another potential case of obstruction of justice by Bush. It concerns the NSA's illegal program of spying on Americans without court-approved warrants. It is a constitutional crisis that Bush & Co. perhaps thought it had put to bed two months ago by announcing (abruptly) that it would resume obeying the FISA law.

But as Bush could have learned from an earlier king, Oedipus of Thebes, what starts out badly usually ends less well no matter how many regrets one may have.

Congressional investigations last winter and spring into the NSA program were truly stymied. Republicans were in a mood to stone-wall and Democrats could not get any real information about what the NSA was doing. The Acting Inspector General of the Defense Department, Thomas Gimble, declined a Congressional request to investigate because, he said, the NSA Inspector General was "already actively reviewing aspects of that program"—an investigation which never came to anything. Several Democrats in the House also asked the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility to open an investigation. But this was shut down after the DOJ officials on the case were denied clearances to review the classified information in April.

At first the head of OPR, H. Marshall Jarrett, refused to explain to Congress who had turned down the request for clearances, which routinely would have been granted. On June 8, Jarrett wrote to the Democrats who had requested the investigation that he could not identify who made the decision because to do so "would require me to disclose client confidences and internal Justice Department deliberations, which I am precluded from doing."

Finally in July 2006 Alberto Gonzales, pressured to explain to the Senate Judiciary Committee who had taken the decision to deny necessary clearances to the investigators, revealed that it was George Bush. But the DOJ continued to pretend, as before, that the decision was based on national-security considerations. As the Deputy Attorney General wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 27, 2006:

The president decided that protecting the secrecy and security of the program requires that a strict limit be placed on the number of persons granted access to information about the program for nonoperational reasons. Every additional security clearance that is granted for the [terrorist surveillance program] increases the risk that national security may be compromised.


Yesterday, we learned from Murray Waas that the truth is very different. First, it turns out that when members of Congress pressed Jarrett for an explanation, his superiors in DOJ told him to cover-up the truth:

[Rep. Maurice] Hinchey and other Democratic House members asked Jarrett why he was unable to obtain the necessary clearances; Jarrett's superiors, according to government records and to interviews, instructed him not to inform Congress that President Bush had made the decision.


Second, we learn that the OPR probe, had it gone forward, would almost certainly have been investigating Alberto Gonzales for his role in the warrantless spy program.

Sources familiar with the halted inquiry said that if the probe had been allowed to continue, it would have examined Gonzales's role in authorizing the eavesdropping program while he was White House counsel, as well as his subsequent oversight of the program as attorney general.


And third, we learn that after Gonzales discovered that he would be a focus of the investigation, he advised Bush on the question of whether the clearances should be granted to the OPR investigators.

In short, depending upon what Gonzales said to Bush in that meeting, one or both men may have engaged in obstruction of justice.

Both the White House and Gonzales declined comment on two issues -- whether Gonzales informed Bush that his own conduct was about to be scrutinized, and whether he urged the president to close down the investigation...

Current and former Justice Department officials, as well as experts in legal ethics, question the propriety of Gonzales's continuing to advise Bush about the investigation after learning that it might examine his own actions. The attorney general, they say, was remiss if he did not disclose that information to the president. But if Gonzales did inform Bush about the possibility and the president responded by stymieing the probe, that would raise even more-serious questions as to whether Bush acted to protect Gonzales, they said.


~~~


Even if Bush & Co. could do nothing else right, they used to be able to keep a veil pulled over their politicization of every last corner of the Executive branch. Their stone-walling used to hold firm. When the WH stiff-armed the Congress, they could offer any old explanation, or none at all, without suffering the consequences.

Consider for example their remarkable success in rebuffing Nancy Pelosi's request last winter for a list of the members of Congress who had been briefed on the NSA illegal wiretap program. When Pelosi refused to be fobbed off with evasions, the WH simply drew up such a list, classified it, and refused to grant her permission to see it. The stunt was a piece of absurdist comedy, as I remarked. But did reporters turn it into a damaging scandal? Did the WH pay any penalty for its egregious cover-up? I don't remember the slightest peep raised in public protest.

Now, though, it seems there's a fair chance that any given ploy by Bush & Co. is almost bound explode in their faces.

~~~



The firing of several US Attorneys for political reasons is one such ploy. On Tuesday of this week, I rather enjoyed the spectacle of the administration selectively leaking official emails. The leaked emails purported to show that (i) the firings grew out of an innocent proposal in early 2005 to replace all 93 US Attorneys; and (ii) the proposal was the brainchild of the former WH Counsel, Harriet Miers.

Oddly, these were leaked to the Washington Post before being handed over to Congress.

The White House suggested two years ago that the Justice Department fire all 93 U.S. attorneys, a proposal that eventually resulted in the dismissals of eight prosecutors last year, according to e-mails and internal documents that the administration will provide to Congress today...

Lawmakers requested the documents as part of an investigation into whether the firings were politically motivated. While it is unclear whether the documents, which were reviewed yesterday by The Washington Post, will answer Congress's questions, they show that the White House and other administration officials were more closely involved in the dismissals, and at a much earlier date, than they have previously acknowledged.


At the time, it seemed almost certain that the WH was leaking emails to the Post selectively in order to spin the story to its liking. Bush must fear above all a charge of obstruction of justice in these cases, because several of the fired Attorneys had been investigating Bush's Republican allies and donors. What Tuesday's Post story did, by a most striking coincidence, was insulate Bush from the allegation of obstructing justice because: (i) the first plan was to sack everybody; and (ii) Bush had nothing to do with the plan initially.

Indeed, the Post story also insulated Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales in a splashy way. Both men are under intense criticism because of this scandal:

But the documents and interviews indicate that the idea for the firings originated at least two years ago, when then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers suggested to Sampson in February 2005 that all prosecutors be dismissed and replaced.
Gonzales rejected that idea as impractical and disruptive, Justice officials said, but over the next 22 months Sampson orchestrated more limited dismissals...

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that "it doesn't appear the president was told about a list nor shown a list" of U.S. attorneys at any point in the discussions. She said White House political adviser Karl Rove had an early conversation with Miers about the idea of firing all chief prosecutors and did not think it was wise...

"White House officials including the president did not direct DOJ to take any specific action with regards to any specific U.S. attorney."


The Post article threw several people to the wolves—most prominently Miers and Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' Chief of Staff—but it seemed to leave Bush, Rove, and Gonzales in the clear. The last statement quoted from Perino almost perfectly sums up the deception. How could US Attorneys be fired, except with the say so of the President? It is a classic cover-up from this administration, utterly preposterous, and in an earlier time, that is where things would have ended.

By Thursday, Rove felt confident enough to assert publicly that the decision on firing the Attorneys was taken by the DOJ "on the basis of policy and personnel", and that "people want to play politics with" the issue.

But things didn't end this time with the WH sneering at its critics. Other emails came out on Thursday afternoon, and as it happens, they paint a different picture of WH involvement.

New unreleased e-mails from top administration officials show that the idea of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys was raised by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove in early January 2005, indicating Rove was more involved in the plan than the White House previously acknowledged. The e-mails also show how Alberto Gonzales discussed the idea of firing the attorneys en masse while he was still White House counsel -- weeks before he was confirmed as attorney general.

The e-mails put Rove at the epicenter of the imbroglio and raise questions about Gonzales' explanations of the matter.
The White House said Thursday night that the e-mails did not contradict the previous statements about former White House counsel Harriet Miers' role.


That was an interesting interpretation of the facts. On Tuesday, Tony Snow had told reporters that the idea to fire 93 Attorneys had been Miers' alone, and that DOJ rejected the idea quickly.

The [new] e-mail exchange is dated more than a month before the White House acknowledged it was considering firing all the U.S. attorneys...The latest e-mails show that Gonzales and Rove were both involved in the discussion, and neither rejected it out of hand.


This time, the absurd argument didn't hold up to scrutiny for long. By Friday afternoon the WH had changed its story:

The White House on Friday backed off its earlier contention that then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers first raised the idea of firing U.S. attorneys — an act that led to a firestorm of criticism of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

“It has been described as her idea but ... I don’t want to try to vouch for origination,” said White House press secretary Tony Snow, who previously had asserted Miers was the person who came up with the idea. “At this juncture, people have hazy memories.”...

“This is as far as we can go: we know that Karl recollects Harriet having raised it and his recollection is that he dismissed it as not a good idea,” Snow told reporters. “That’s what we know. We don’t know motivations. ... I don’t think it’s safe to go any further than that.”

Asked if Bush himself might have suggested the firings, Snow said, “Anything’s possible ... but I don’t think so.” He said Bush “certainly has no recollection of any such thing. I can’t speak for the attorney general.

“I want you to be clear here: don’t be dropping it at the president’s door,” Snow said.


What about dropping it at Rove's door? From the Associated Press:

A midday e-mail between two White House staffers, dated Jan. 6, 2005, was titled, "Question from Karl Rove."

"Karl Rove stopped by to ask you (roughly quoting), 'How we planned to proceed regarding US Attorneys, whether we were going to allow all to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them, or selectively replace them, etc.,'" Colin Newman, a legal aide in the White House counsel's office, wrote deputy counsel David Leitch.

Leitch immediately forwarded that message to Sampson. Three days later, on Jan. 9, Sampson sent back a lengthy reply.

"Judge and I discussed briefly a couple of weeks ago," Sampson wrote, referring to Gonzales, a former Texas state Supreme Court justice. He said the Justice Department was looking at replacing "underperforming" prosecutors. "The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc.," he said.

Sampson noted that, at the time, all 93 prosecutors were in the middle of their terms. "Although they serve at the pleasure of the President, it would be weird to ask them to leave before completing at least a 4-year term," he wrote.


Darn. That appears to wreck every last talking-point that the WH has promulgated, expose every deception, and blow everybody's cover.

Funny, that email exchange didn't make it earlier this week into the hands of the Post reporters.

Even funnier, when the email did emerge, journalists actually reported on its implications regarding the WH cover-up. It must be hard nowadays for Bush & Co. to predict how these kinds of things will turn out. Suddenly, everything is wide-open.

crossposted at Unbossed

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